When killers came to a rich man's playground

When the crew and guests of a luxury yacht were found murdered off Barbuda, panic hit the tourist set. Now the trial of their alleged killers looks set to divide the tiny Caribbean island. Bob Graham reports
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The Independent Online
The hushed whispers demanding that the three accused be hanged have already started running round the courtroom, even before the trial begins.

The three young men, all in their early twenties, stand sweating and occasionally wiping the perspiration from their eyes as they listen intently to the whispers behind them. On the left, Mellanson Harris, muscular and stocky, clenches a yellow cloth in his right hand to wipe his brow. In the middle, Marvin Joseph wears dark glasses, his manner suggesting arrogance as he toys with his plaited ponytail. To the right, Donaldson Samuel fidgets, his green checked shirt already soaked through with sweat.

The three should have stood trial in the High Court of Antigua yesterday for the murders of four foreigners, two Britons and two Americans, whose bodies were discovered two years ago aboard a luxury yacht anchored off the coast of Barbuda.

The trial was set to proceed until, at the very last minute yesterday, Terrence Bird, counsel for Mellanson Harris, asked for a 24-hour adjournment - "to sort out some last-minute details".

The large public gallery stirred and grumbled at this unexpected delay: they wanted this trial to get started and be done with.

The murders of the four people - the Britons Ian Cridland and Tom Williams and an American middle-aged couple, William and Kathleen Clever - in January 1994, have left an indelible stain on the reputation of the two paradise islands of Antigua and Barbuda in the eastern Caribbean.

The economies of the neighbouring islands depend on tourism - particularly the yachting communities - for 50 per cent of their income, and the brutal murders caused a tidal wave of panic to surge through the "yachties".

In the eyes of many people on the islands, the murders were more than just the deaths of four people, they were an attack on the livelihoods of the islanders themselves. At the back of the court, Lynroy Phillips, a taxi driver who depends on tourism for his income, was emphatic: "This is a trial, man, not just for murders, but for that attack on all of us living here."

Barbudans are not accustomed to murder. Their tiny island, 27 miles north of Antigua and known as "the pink jewel of the Caribbean" because of the colour of its beaches, attracts some of the richest tourists in the world - most recently the Princess of Wales, who spent New Year being pampered at the pounds 6,000-a-week K Club. There is only one town - Codrington, named after the family that once owned the island - and the population is barely 1,500.

Despite poverty on the island, Barbudans have taken pride in the absence of violence. "This is paradise and we have no need for violence here," says Jonny Johnstone, a local boatman. "We may be poor, but we're happy. There ain't no money that can buy a place like this on God's earth."

That peace was shattered by the brutal murders on board the yacht Challenger. The 65-foot ketch was owned by Peter Ogden, chairman of Computacenter, the largest computer dealership in Britain. On board were Ian Cridland, the 33-year-old skipper of the yacht, and Tom Williams, his 22-year-old deckhand.

They were joined by Bill and Kathy Clever, a wealthy middle-aged Californian couple who had flown to the Caribbean from Britain for a week's fishing and swimming. The Clevers had met Ogden in the late Eighties through their shared passion for sailing. When he offered the couple the chance to look after Jethou, a small island near Guernsey owned by him, they leapt at the opportunity. Their trip on the Challenger was to be a reward for spending two years as caretakers of the island.

The Clevers flew into Antigua on 24 January 1994 and joined the Challenger in English Harbour, a popular playground for the international yachting set. Two days later, the boat set sail for Barbuda, for the deserted western- facing beaches of Low Bay, where the pink sand stretches for nearly 10 miles.

When Cridland radioed Falmouth Harbour, Antigua, on the first night, he reported that they were having a good time. "This", he declared, "is one of the most beautiful places on the planet."

The following morning, fellow yachtsmen noticed that the Challenger's lights were on and its hatches open. Alan Whitehead sailed across from his yacht, the Ulu, and climbed aboard. Inside the cabin he found four bodies - bound and gagged, and killed by a combination of multiple stab wounds and shotgun injuries. Two of the boat's tools, a metal spike and a wooden handled blade, were found caked in blood beside the bodies.

A frantic West Indian press, aware of how the killings would quickly affect the lucrative luxury yacht trade, hastened to point an accusing finger at Colombian drugs smugglers or even pirates.

Meanwhile, British detectives, who were already in Antigua helping with the case of a murdered customs chief, set about their own investigation, led by Detective Superintendent Michael Lawrence of Scotland Yard's international and organised crime department. They started on the pink beaches, which Det Supt Lawrence admitted later "did not even have a footprint on them".

When the Scotland Yard officer suggested that drugs smuggling and piracy might not be behind the killings and that they could have been carried out by locals, he was ridiculed. Some of the local population even accused him of failing to understand Barbudans, who would "never commit such a crime". But after nearly four weeks of painstaking interviews with almost the entire population of Barbuda, Det Supt Lawrence arrested the three accused, Harris, Joseph and Samuel, in Codrington.

Many people in Antigua and Barbuda remain convinced that drugs played a significant part in the killings. That view, widely held because the twin islands lie in a natural path between the drug producers of South America and the drug syndicates of the US, is not supported by the British detectives' investigation, though when they probed the recent backgrounds of the three suspects they found that two of them had made a lengthy visit to New York City in 1993. This visit, and the effect it may have had on the accused, is likely to be widely discussed during the trial.

The three were all unemployed, but two of them, Harris and Joseph, had relatives living in New York. The pair tried their luck in the Big Apple and it is known that they were exposed to the city's gun-toting gangs.

When they returned, it is alleged, they imported their new-found knowledge of crime to Codrington, and with it a change in lifestyle for the entire community of Barbuda and Antigua.

Despite the fact that the investigation has pointed strictly at a robbery that went horribly wrong, the islanders are still desperately confused about the notion that their own people could resort to murders that involved torture, manacles and being shot at point-blank range.

"We are a people who do not understand violence, we are peaceful," says Lynroy Phillips. "The sort of violence that occurred when these four people were murdered is something that has always happened in other communities and other countries, it does not happen here."

Whatever the motives and reasons for the killings, which will emerge fully over the next three weeks of the trial, many of the local people believe - as they made clear in court yesterday - that there should be only one sentence: the death penalty, which in Antigua means hanging.

Mr Phillips enforced the point as he pointed at the three accused. "Man, they gotta be hanged. They did it and they gotta go straight after they are found guilty.

"They can plead not guilty, but the people here know the truth. What's more important is that when they are found guilty they gotta be hanged to give a message to every other young person who thinks they can import murder to Antigua and Barbuda."